- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The chairman of the House subcommittee on human rights says President Obama has a final chance to live up to his Nobel Peace Prize by confronting Chinese President Xi Jinping over the treatment of political prisoners, as the two leaders meet Thursday on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Washington.

Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican and a leading voice on Capitol Hill on human rights issues, said Mr. Obama has been a disappointment so far, failing to use either the power of the presidency or his stature as the 2009 Nobel honor to comfort political prisoners or to push back against authoritarian advances by the Chinese regime.

“The hope is that he will finally find his voice” in the relationship with China, Mr. Smith said. “Human rights is always an asterisk, an obligatory paragraph in a joint communique, or less than that.”

Mr. Smith said Mr. Obama has repeatedly ignored human rights in dealing with leaders of nations with poor records on the subject, including most recently in Cuba, where the president stood to the side of leader Raul Castro, who insisted his country does not hold any political prisoners.

The congressman, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations, said he hoped Mr. Obama doesn’t take the same approach with Mr. Xi, whose regime holds some 1,500 political prisoners.

“The president wouldn’t recognize hardly a name [on that list] because he never raises their cases,” Mr. Smith said. “Mr. President, you’re going to be looking face to face with Xi Jinping. Give him names, be very specific.”

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The administration, though, appeared to play down the idea of confrontations, highlighting what it considers a more successful approach of direct high-level engagement on areas where the two countries can cooperate, such as climate change or security concerns.

“I think because of this high-tempo senior-level engagement, we’ve been able to identify opportunities for cooperation where our interests align,” Dan Kritenbrink, the senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, told reporters in advance of the visit. “For example, I think bilateral cooperation with China right now is exceptionally broad and deep on issues ranging from climate to nuclear security to development, public health, Iran and Afghanistan.”

Mr. Kritenbrink said the relationship has also allowed the two leaders to talk about areas where the countries disagree.

“We don’t paper over these differences. We don’t hide them. We don’t pull punches in addressing them,” he insisted.

Mr. Smith said he hasn’t seen the evidence of that. Instead, when pressed by reporters on confronting China, Mr. Smith said Mr. Obama has excused the regime, saying they have a different culture.

Mr. Smith said the words of the U.S. carry a lot of weight with those struggling against Chinese oppression — and the lack of attention also sends a signal, both to the victims and the regime.

“Because we have been indifferent, and indifferent on steroids, with regards to prisoners in China, Xi Jinping takes his cue from that,” Mr. Smith said.

He said the problems go beyond political prisoners, to include China’s attempts to extend control over religious denominations and its continued use of torture on prisoners.

China is also moving to consolidate its ability to censor the Internet within its borders, drafting rules requiring businesses offering Internet access to demand their users register any websites within the country rather than overseas, the Associated Press reported. The move to draft new rules was seen as a way to make it easier for censors to block objectionable sites.

But China has caved to pressure on these matters in the past. An effort last year to enact a law requiring companies to keep Chinese user data at facilities in China was dropped after the White House raised objections.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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